Tag Archives: New York Review of Books

The collapsing world

4 Dec
Shaman Davi Kopenawa

Shaman Davi Kopenawa

In a recent review of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, I learn that in a creation myth of the Yanomami people, the original world – the world that was here before – was “crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed ‘back’ of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged.” A new sky was set up and “held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.”

The fragility of the known world is a theme that emerges also in Juan José Saer’s book The Witness (see post from 30 November). The nameless cabin boy who is adopted by a tribe living on the banks of a South American river is returned to the invading Spaniards ten years after his capture. Eschewing public attention, he holes up in a Spanish monastery for several years, under the tutelage of a sagacious monk, who teaches him Latin, Greek and Hebrew. On his protector’s death, he leaves the monastery and lives as a vagrant, before eventually he joins up with a group of actors, and – to great public acclaim – tours the cities of Europe, performing a drama of his ‘life among the savages’, in which he acts himself. It is only in his old age that he settles down to write his account of those years.

And here he returns to the theme of the precariousness of the world, and all that is in it. The Indians among whom he lived all those years ago considered themselves and the world they inhabited to be coterminous. Outside they do not feel on safe ground.

“Even though they [the Indians] took for granted the non-existence of others, their own existence was in no way irrefutable . . . For them the main attribute of all things was precariousness.” This belief has a linguistic base: there is no equivalent word in their language for ‘to be’. The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’. “But ‘seems’ has more of a feeling of untrustworthiness than sameness. It is more a negative than a positive. It implies an objection rather than a comparison. It does not refer to a known image but rather tends to erode perception and diminish its force. The word used to designate appearance also means exteriority, a lie, an eclipse, enemy. Everything that presented itself clearly to the sense was for them formless and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.” The people among whom our narrator lives, nevertheless, regard themselves as the custodians of this fragile and terrifyingly insubstantial world. “In their hands lay the precarious fate of all perishable life. It would take only a moment’s inattention for it all to collapse, taking them with it.”

I do not regard this attitude towards the imminent collapse of all reality to be that unreasonable. After all, those of us who grew up in the sixties came to consciousness under a not entirely dissimilar mythology of imminent extinction: in our case it was thermonuclear war. Now it is the destruction of the ozone layer and climate change. It is no surprise that environmentalists have adopted the Shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-author of The Falling Sky, as a spokesperson for those many peoples whose habitat is under constant environmental threat from loggers and miners, or from the effects of climate change. Davi Kopenawa has taken on this mantle, appearing at events worldwide on behalf of his people, and others like them. According to the New York Review article, “he finds echoes of Yanomami notions in Western environmental thought, but with an important caveat: “Since the beginning of time, Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology…. In the forest, we human beings are the ‘ecology.’”

The last digression of Patrick Leigh Fermor

7 Jun

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

 

Reading the final ‘long awaited’ – which in this instance meant waiting for the Death of the Author in 2011 at the age of 96 – third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 trek across Europe, three questions occur to me about the inability of PLF to complete and publish the book while still alive.

1)   the accumulation of digressions (both of writing and in life); indeed what amounted to PLF’s compulsion to digress (of itself no bad thing);

2)   his failure of memory, aided and abetted by the loss of certain of the relevant notebooks;

3)   an inability to contemplate the end of his journey which must, by some not-so-strange interior logic, also mean the end of his life.

An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the current issue of The New York Review of Books also suggests a combination of factors, most particularly the digressions that formed such a substantial part of Paddy’s life and work. “We shall never get to Constantinople like this,” the author announces in a meta-textual aside, which constitutes “a humorous acknowledgement . . of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative . . .”

Indeed, “the author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following.”

The naivety and sheer joy of unfettered travel; the “ecstasy” that Paddy describes on “realising that nobody in the world knew where he was” – a sensation, as Mendelssohn points out, that would be practically impossible for travellers today, but which I recall from my own wanderings in the 1980s as having provoked a similarly feverish sense of total liberation; the wonderful lists that pepper his writing, eliciting new tastes and new sensations and a constant hunger to celebrate life as fully as possible; his unerring ability to stir in the reader a desire to write – which to me constitutes a failsafe criterion of all good writing; and finally – almost because of its flaws – and certainly because of what we know to have transpired in the two earlier volumes, and the unbearable anticipation of the thing – which was like a Sword of Damocles for PLF in later years – all of these help to make this book one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year thus far. While reading it too, I am more conscious than I was during the preceding two volumes of Paddy’s tendency to confabulate. At more than one point Paddy confesses that he cannot truly remember what happened next, but continues anyway, and even interjects passages of outrageous fantasy to spice up the story. A quotation from Javier Marías’ novel, The Infatuations, comes to mind:

“Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”

Like Mendelsohn, I found The Broken Road’s incompleteness, paradoxically, to be more fitting than any neatly circumscribed ending that the author might have engineered. After so much deep description, after so many early mornings waking by the roadside with a sense of the sheer limitless possibility of the unfinished journey, after so much continuous pointless peregrination, any kind of ‘arrival’ would only have been a let-down.

While listing, above, the three reasons for the unfinished nature of the trilogy, a fourth, not entirely facetious option came to mind. Paddy famously never referred to the ultimate destination of his journey as Istanbul, but as Constantinople. Since ‘Constantinople’ did not exist under that name (nor had it, strictly speaking, since 1453), Paddy was never going to arrive. Instead we are allowed to share with him the nostalgia (which he shares with Cavafy) for a broken Hellenic world, for the ghosts of Byzantium, and a burgeoning sense of the terror that was about to descend on Europe in the years immediately following his journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chattering mind

24 Jul

 

The modern novel obsesses about itself. For many writers of novels, and of short stories, the act of narration itself becomes the topic of storytelling. I was culpable of this myself in my first foray into novel-writing, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, which is (and which always set out to be) a study in the art of storytelling, and in which the nature of the story being told is itself always and forever under scrutiny. I was, in those days – and in many ways remain – a disciple of Italo Calvino in this respect.

But how much of this reflexivity can we all take? I am currently reading Marina Warner’s ‘Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nightsand am again struck, as I was in my childhood, by the sheer joy of storytelling in these archetypal and magical tales. I am reminded of Borges’ comment that all great literature becomes children’s literature, about which Warner comments: “he was thinking of The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe as well as Tales of A Thousand and One Nights, but his paradox depends on the deep universal pleasures of storytelling for young and old: stories like those in the Arabian Nights place the audience in the position of a child, at the mercy of the future, of life and its plots, just as the protagonists of the Nights are subject to unknown fates, both terrible and marvellous.”

How far, then, is this mode of ‘simple’ storytelling from the convoluted twistings of what Tim Parks, in a recent article in The New York Review of Books, calls ‘the chattering mind’. Parks identifies this state of terminal parodic self-observation as the status quo of contemporary literary fiction (and presumably includes himself as an exemplar within this category). ‘Mental chatter’ (which several critics appeared to dislike about my Dog) can be seen as the single defining characteristic of this mindset:

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

Perhaps the challenge for novelists now is to find simplicity without being simplistic, to tap into the root of an intuitively convincing, spellbinding narrative that engages the reader at different levels (but without seeming pretentious on this score) and which, while allowing the chattering mind its share of the spoils, does not allow this bullying King Baby total dominance of the reading experience.

Otherwise we keep treading the endless spiral explored by Beckett, curator of the chattering mind school of literature, which, absorbing as it is, leads only to where one began, in endless repetition.

I realize now, in my middle fifties, what a huge, and in many ways, destructive influence Beckett wielded on so many of us growing up in the Godot generation (it was first performed three years before I was born); as much, say, as the influence that Joyce held over Beckett, and  which he spent so long attempting to shed.

Tim Parks again:

Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

I will, however –  no, therefore – continue in my quest to find the hidden passageways that connect A Thousand and One Nights with Endgame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘very special place of love’: Roberto Bolaño, V.S. Naipaul, and sodomy.

13 Apr

The young Roberto Bolaño

 

A new addition to the mass of Bolaño miscellanea being published in English appears on the New York Review of Books blog. In an entertaining essay, Scholars of Sodom, Bolaño takes a delightful swipe at V.S. Naipaul’s absurd and arrogant attack on Argentina, in which the choleric Trinidadian decided that Argentina’s woes, political and cultural, stem from a typically macho predilection for buggery.

Luckily, the NYRB blog allows the reader to link to Naipaul’s original essayArgentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard, as well as two others; The Corpse at the Iron Gate and Comprehending Borges. Best to focus on the first of these, as this is where he first lays down his extraordinary theory. Naipaul starts from the premise that Argentina is a land founded on the principle of plunder – of the Indians, of the land itself – a theme which he establishes early on and which he develops, after a tortuous route, towards a startling conclusion. Considering the macho attitudes that dominate Argentinian society at the time of writing (the essay was published in 1974), and the prevalence of bordellos, Naipaul warns that “Every schoolgirl knows the brothels; from an early age she understands that she might have to go there one day to find love, among the colored lights and mirrors.” And then, his coup de grace:

The act of straight sex, easily bought, is of no great moment to the macho. His conquest of a woman is complete only when he has buggered her. This is what the woman has it in her power to deny; this is what the brothel game is about, the passionless Latin adventure that begins with talk of amor. La tuve en el culo, I’ve had her in the arse: this is how the macho reports victory to his circle, or dismisses a desertion. Contemporary sexologists give a general dispensation to buggery. But the buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries. The Church considers it a heavy sin, and prostitutes hold it in horror. By imposing on her what prostitutes reject, and what he knows to be a kind of sexual black mass, the Argentine macho, in the main of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonors his victim. So diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody.

Armed with this knowledge, Naipaul feels he has finally understood the Argentinians, with “their violence, their peasant cruelty, their belief in magic, and their fascination with death, celebrated every day in the newspapers with pictures of murdered people, often guerrilla victims, lying in their coffins.”

No holds barred here then. As Bolaño put it, in his imaginative response to the article, “Naipaul’s vision of Argentina could hardly have been less flattering. As the days went by, he came to find not only the city [Buenos Aires] but the country as a whole insufferably aggravating. His uneasy feeling about the place seemed to be intensified by every visit, every new acquaintance he made.”

 

A recent photo of VS Naipaul

 

Bolaño takes up the thread of Naipaul’s argument, and extemporises on the theme:

I remember, he writes, that when I read the paragraph in which Naipaul explains what he takes to be the origin of the Argentinean habit of sodomy, I was somewhat taken aback. As well as being logically flawed, the explanation has no basis in historical or social facts. What did Naipaul know about the sexual customs of Spanish and Italian rural laborers from 1850 to 1925? Maybe, while touring the bars on Corrientes late one night, he heard a sportswriter recounting the sexual exploits of his grandfather or great-grandfather, who, when night fell over Sicily or Asturias, used to go fuck the sheep. Maybe.  In my story, Naipaul closes his eyes and imagines a Mediterranean shepherd boy fucking a sheep or a goat. Then the shepherd boy caresses the goat and falls asleep. The shepherd boy dreams in the moonlight: he sees himself many years later, many pounds heavier, many inches taller, in possession of a large mustache, married, with numerous children, the boys working on the farm, tending the flock that has multiplied (or dwindled), the girls busy in the house or the garden, subjected to his molestations or to those of their brothers, and finally his wife, queen and slave, sodomized nightly, taken up the ass—a picturesque vignette that owes more to the erotico-bucolic desires of a nineteenth-century French pornographer than to harsh reality, which has the face of a castrated dog. I’m not saying that the good peasant couples of Sicily and Valencia never practiced sodomy, but surely not with the regularity of a custom destined to flourish beyond the seas.

The danger in theorising outward from a single sexual act (one which seems to fill Naipaul with unspeakable horror) is that it creates a rather lopsided (and ultimately hilarious) simplification of Argentinian culture. It is a long time since I read Naipaul, and reading this quite demented essay, and Bolaño’s intelligent and witty response to it, reminded me why.

How interesting then, to read Ian Buruma’s review of Naipaul’s authorized  biography (by Patrick French), also available on the NYRB website, and to discover that – when not beating her up – sodomising his Anglo-Argentinian mistress was Naipaul’s preferred occupation of an evening, while the cockatoos sang and the sun went down. Here is the passage summarizing their longstanding relationship, and the very special role of sodomy within it:

In Buenos Aires, at the apartment of Borges’s translator, Naipaul met Margaret Murray, a vivacious Anglo-Argentinian:

I wished to possess her as soon as I saw her…. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all. And somehow the need was so great that I did do it.

Margaret left her husband and children, and for the next twenty years would be at the beck and call of her master, who was finally able to do all the things that had horrified and fascinated him before . . .The more Naipaul abused Margaret, the more she came back for more. She wrote him letters, paraphrased by French, about worshiping at the shrine of the master’s penis, about “Vido” as a horrible black man with hideous powers over her. Her letters were often left unopened, and certainly unanswered, adding to her sense of submission. According to Naipaul, he beat her so severely on one occasion that his hand hurt, and her face was so badly disfigured that she couldn’t appear in public (the hurt hand seems to have been of greater concern). But Naipaul said, “She didn’t mind at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her.” And then there was the mutual passion for anal sex, or as Margaret put it (paraphrased by French), “visiting the very special place of love.”

Funny the way things come round.